Time For Change In Salmon Management In Scotland

Ian Gordon is regarded as one of the world's leading salmon fishing guides, and casting instructors.  He runs one the country's top fishing/casting schools each spring on the Tulchan and Macallan beats of the River Spey.  Ian's view is that Salmon Management in Scotland is failing, and after 20 years there is nothing positive to show.  With the salmon population in our major rivers declining, this is a view shared by many ghillies, estate owners and salmon anglers.  In his article below, Ian contends that experts are pulling the wool over people's eyes and concealing the extent of their failings.  So he is looking for divers to gather information about what is actually happening in the river, and to get stakeholders increasingly vocal and engaged in this vital issue.


The 1980s saw the first fishery Biologists make an appearance on the big rivers of Scotland. Their remit or goal was to understand more and ensure the long-term sustainability of the fishery. As someone with a deep interest, personally, at the time, I thought this could and would be a good thing for the future of salmon fishing.

A.  What has happened in the meantime:
  • The species has depleted to levels never seen before.
  • After more than 30 years of scientific input, our/their overall understanding of stock levels are based around pure guesswork using catch stats as a base.
  • Biologists feel Juvenile numbers are generally in good health on most rivers. However, most living and working on the river say the opposite.
  • Numbers of Predators such as Seals, Dolphins, Goosanders and Cormorants have increased to levels never seen before.
  • The scientific community offers nothing but more of the same as they have over the past 20 years. Something which obviously has made no difference to the overall decline.
  • Catch and release. Unfortunately, this was only ever going to buy time. Rational/logical thinking would let anyone come to this conclusion. From the early 1960s and onward, we have continuously banned every effective method (drift nets, net and cobble, prawning, shrimping, spinning, worming etc, etc) for catching salmon, so how can anyone think that catch & release will do anything but slow the decline?  We’ll, just think about it?
  • The Scientific community base their stock assessment on a rod catch of between 10% and 15%. This is seriously dangerous, given that rivers in Canada and Iceland regularly catch 50% - 70% of all fish entering them with rod and line.
  • Whether Einstein said it or not, “The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting the same result”. 20 years or more of the same on all our rivers with nothing positive to show must mean time for a change! Especially given that the business of Salmon Fishing appears to be in free fall!!


Firstly, we must accept the problem! Unfortunately, this is something our managers are not willing to do. However, change has to come and the following will be a good starting point:
  • Accepting that we have been catching nearer 50% of what’s there will bring us much closer to the number of fish actually in the river, particularly in the last 10 years where the average catch will be nearer 8k than 10k. So, a year with 6k caught will be nearer a total of 12k in the river, well below Dr Butler’s critical figure of 20k. (see point v below).
  • Accept that C&R has distorted catch stats, and with this, our understanding of how many adults are actually present.. We know that a great many fish are recaptured suggesting the problem may be even worse than even the worst case scenario!
  • Use divers to count the fish in our rivers physically. This method is accepted by both the Norwegian and Canadian Government to evaluate the stock in a river system.
  • Once this is done and we finally have an accurate figure, compare this with what our experts have told us.
  • Take this “revised” figure and work back to find out whether we have enough juveniles or not. With regard to the Spey, former Director, Dr James Butler, maintained that juvenile output would be compromised should adult numbers dip below 20,000. My own belief is we have not seen 20,000 in the Spey since the nets were taken off in 1993. Possibly with the exception of the years 1995-6.
  • If we take this figure (The one we find via the divers) as worst case scenario then we will “know” both juvenile and adult fish are in trouble and we are way below the point Dr Butler and many others felt would be “critical” for the fishery.

Having established a major problem for the fishery, what options do we have?
    1. A restocking programme is an absolute must. For years now the run of adult fish to salmon rivers of Scotland, the Spey included, have declined to the extent they no longer produce sufficient juveniles to sustain a viable fishery.
    2. Like the river Jokla in Iceland, this gives the river a boost and will see the river once again producing, not just enough, but an abundance of juveniles. Only this will be enough to counter what may be going on at sea.
    3. Lobby government using historical data and video evidence to have predators, particularly fish eating birds, dealt with properly. Goosanders onto general licence for a period of time and have scientists monitor.
    4. Use the power of the media to bring the plight of the Salmon to the hearts and minds of more of the greater public.
    5. Video is a great tool here. Also, the “story” of the decline itself. As an emotive campaign, it must be led by passionate people, those involved day to day and whose lives are affected by the decline. The historical stereotype of salmon fishing being only for the wealthy and well-spoken is not only inaccurate, but divisive. Now, more than ever, we need salmon fishing to be seen for what it is, a sport enjoyed by people from every social background. Stereotyping it as "elitist” makes it too easy for the Scottish government to ignore the current problems, issues and local concerns. We must challenge this with facts. Interview local business owners, Ghillies and fishing clients to build a more realistic picture of what salmon fishing means and perhaps more importantly, what it could mean to 21st century Scotland.

The Spey Fishery Board recently declined the offer by a new Beat owner to help fund a restocking programme. The reason given was “on the Best scientific advice available”. The bottom line is, every one of those scientists giving advice is terrified to:

    1. Even try to properly count the fish in our river.
    2. Use the funds offered by the new owner to “prove” to everyone, myself and the millions of doubters, that in fact their theory is correct.
    3. Be proved wrong!

If Dr David Summers and Brian Shaw are so confident, the return of hatchery fish will be so small it won’t impact in the least on wild fish. I’d ask them this, put your reputation where your mouth is and use the money to “properly” answer the questions above. Resolve this once and for all, with a national case study funded by the new owner at Tulchan, other Spey proprietors, anglers and business owners.  They are willing to fund the project and have “wanted” in the past, but now are “demanding” those questions are properly answered.

The project would be overseen by independent experts with a track record in this field as our scientists focus on every negative they possibly can when dealing with the subject, painting as bleak a picture possible to the uneducated. It would seem our own scientists simply don’t want the questions properly answered. But why should this be? Well, in the first instance, it’s because they worry more about that old chestnut, genetic integrity because they know the return from the “properly run and managed hatchery” will be greater than the figures they feed the uneducated. They simply don’t want to know how many fish are in the river as it will prove the figure of 10-15% rod caught fish is total nonsense, again damaging their professional reputation. Personally, I’d love to be “proved” wrong in all of this, but, other than number 3, I know for a fact I wont be.

The Solution

The answer is to get the divers into the river ASAP. We desperately need this information.  It’s up to fishery owners, Ghillies and those with an interest to make this happen. Already I’ve had information back from a fishery owner who snorkelled his Beat and was flabbergasted at what he saw, or didn’t as the case may be. Given the water height right now (low water at the right time of year) we have never had a better chance to actually find out what’s there and have the information to set the ball of change rolling. Stop talking and get in there and gather the information. If anyone knows any Divers who would be willing to do this please get in touch with me here or simply get into your Beat and count.

Ian Gordon

If you are a diver, and would like to offer your support to this important study, please contact Ian Gordon:

Ian Gordon
11 Conval Street Dufftown,
Keith Banffshire